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Coming to terms with drought
One of the recurring features of droughts in India is a debate on whether there actually is a drought. Governments like to scream drought at the first opportunity.
One chief minister of Karnataka even insisted in the 1980s that the state had faced six droughts in a row. Those looking at rainfall figures, on the other hand, insist on rather stringent criteria for what constitutes a drought.
This largely semantic debate could be ignored, but for the fact that it diverts attention from the issues that a drought, or drought-like situation, on the ground should raise.
To be sure, neither of the extreme positions adopted in the debate bears close scrutiny. Governments have a vested interest in exaggerating the extent of the crisis. It provides an excuse for their less than optimal performance. And it invariably offers an opportunity to raise additional resources.
Those who like to judge the intensity of droughts looking at national rainfall figures are, if anything, even further off the mark. As anyone who has studied rural India will tell you, the problem is not just a matter of the amount of rainfall. It is more often than not, a question of what local communities can do with the rainfall.
The traditional systems of rain harvesting have withered away. Tanks have silted up. Deforestation has reduced the ability of groundwater sources to absorb rainfall. Thus in many parts of the country a level of rainfall that would not have meant a drought, or drought-like situation, half a century ago, can now cause extreme distress.
To this fundamental flaw in understanding the situation on the ground must be added the vagaries of aggregated statistics. In a country of India’s natural diversity droughts and floods not only follow each other but can actually occur simultaneously in different parts of the country.
The distress caused by both the drought and the floods need not be reflected in national rainfall statistics as the two extremes can cancel each other out. But it is only an economist who will take comfort in the overall national figure and term the rainfall in the year to be normal.
At the core of the problem in drought affected regions is the collapse of traditional systems of rain harvesting. The specifics of each traditional system varied substantially across the country, but they invariably failed to stand up to the onslaught of commercialism, technological change and even land reform.
For instance, in parts of Karnataka the village tank was attached to the temple. The priests in charge of the temple were also expected to ensure the maintenance of the tank, in return for which they were given a few acres of land to cultivate.
Their task of maintenance was not too difficult as other farmers in the village used the silt from the tanks on their lands. But with the coming of Green Revolution technology, silt was no longer favoured. Land reforms also allowed the priests to claim the land they cultivated as their own, without their having to take the responsibility of maintaining the tanks.
With no one directly responsible for the maintenance of the tanks and the labour no longer available to de-silt it, the tanks have silted up.
The knee-jerk reaction is to demand a return to traditional systems. But rolling back technological or social change is not easy. While the occasional Gandhian may succeed in reviving community based systems in individual communities, these cases are exceptions rather than the rule.
And, in any case, rolling back changes that have led to increased productivity as well as improved the social status for previously oppressed sections of the community may not even be desirable.
The response of governments to this local change has not been any more promising. They have typically tried to take over the roles traditionally played by the local community. Several state governments have elaborate watershed development programmes. But these programmes are invariably formulated in a way that the beneficiaries cannot be made to pay for the benefits they receive.
This limits the number of watersheds that can be developed. And even those that are developed are often built on borrowed funds, adding to the debt burden of state governments.
A more meaningful response would try to regain the efficiency of the traditional systems through means that are consistent with the modern world. This would require answers to a variety of questions. Can community interest be revived by giving each individual in a community a share in, say, the village tank?
Will such a material interpretation of community involvement create pressure groups in the local community that insist the major users of water pay for it? Will the resources thus generated be sufficient to employ persons to maintain the tank or watershed area?
The answers to these questions would lead to a reform that is very much more wide-ranging in its impact than the one initiated in 1991. But the prospects of the reformers focusing on these issues are not very bright.
The attitude to the rural economy in the reform process has largely been derived from the requirements of reform in other parts of the economy.
The pressures on the fiscal deficit have determined the effort to reduce the food subsidies. The attempt at subsidy reduction has not been accompanied by measures that would reduce the demand for subsidies in rural areas.
Again, the takeover of farm land has been determined by the requirements of large investors. At times, in order to make a project viable, more land is taken over than is, strictly speaking, required for the project.
Both these derived approaches to the rural economy need not be threatened by a drought. Those who tried to reduce the food subsidy by raising PDS prices may in fact be relieved if there is a drought. The higher prices have resulted in the government being left with stocks it cannot maintain.
The drought provides an excuse to provide food to the poor that would otherwise be eaten by rats. Taking over the land of farmers for large projects is also easier when drought has pushed them to the point of distress sale.
The reformers may thus well find it convenient to continue with the approach they have used since 1991, rather than face up to the more difficult challenges the drought poses. And they would find it easier to do so if the debates on drought get lost in semantics.